The Importance of Process

In my last post I discussed the "religious" mindset that frequently invades churches, and particularly Catholic cultures. One of the dangers in trying to name this mindset is the possibility that I will be misunderstood as implying that doctrine needs to change, or that moral issues should be treated relatively. I am in full agreement with the doctrine - moral and otherwise - of the Catholic Church. But this is what perplexes me: if we possess the "fullness of truth," how is it that we are so prone to engendering this "religious" mindset? I believe that this is largely a pedagogical issue.  I think that the "religious" mindset begins to develop inadvertently whenever organizations begin prescribing the outcomes of a process rather than fostering the process itself.

A somewhat absurd example will help illuminate.  Imagine you asked me what you need to do to be an elite weightlifter and I responded just by saying, "You need to bench press over 300 pounds."  If you were to go out and try bench pressing 300 pounds you would literally get crushed.  Getting to that point requires a process, a training regiment where you build up to the desired weight.  The answer of "bench press 300 pounds" might give you a target to aim for, but what you really need is a personal trainer to guide you through the process.

I believe much the same dynamic has been present in the Catholic world.  Our spiritual and intellectual tradition have brought us to a high level of specificity in enumerating the moral consequences of a Christian life.  But what we have largely lost our knack for is the art of transmitting the process of personal spiritual growth.  As one reader remarked on my previous post, "Organized religions have fought the culture wars so long that the true message as to why they feel compelled to fight them has been lost on generations who just want to be loved and fed."

Perhaps this explanation helps some of those who are confused by some of Pope Francis's statements like those found in his interview with America Magazine when he said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." For Pope Francis, it is not a matter of any change in what the Church teaches about these things, for he quickly asserts, "The teaching of the church...is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."  Instead, he points us to the importance of process, saying, "It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up."

FROM THE GROUND UP

In considering these matters, an agricultural analogy can be very helpful. The process of plant growth begins with the soil, the literal ground which makes plant growth possible. Next comes the seed, whose first task is to establish some roots to take in nutrients from the soil. Thus can the growth of the above-ground, visible plant structure safely ensue. Finally, there is the development of fruit, made possible by the existing plant structure on which it hangs. We may neatly summarize the process with the words soil, seed, growth, and fruit.

To what, then, shall we relate these stages in terms of the process of spiritual growth?

  • SOIL - A NEW NATURE. In Matthew 13:1-9 we find Jesus' parable of the sower. Seed (the word) is sown on the path, on rocky ground, and among thorns with no lasting benefit. But the seed sown on rich soil produced "a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold." Even in the explanation Jesus gives to his disciples in 18-23, we find no exhortation to be good soil. Soil must be tilled and reworked by another.  Just so, man's fallen nature must be regenerated if it is to "hear the word and understand it." This foundational element happens on two levels. It happens on the level of man's spirit by baptism, the laver of regeneration by which one becomes a "new creation" in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). But for baptism to have its full intended effect, man's mind must also be renewed by faith and a conscious acceptance of Christ's redeeming action in his life. This is the essential aim of kerygmatic evangelization  - a conscious commitment to the person of Jesus Christ.
  • SEED - RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST. When seed reaches good soil, its first task is to set out roots to draw nutrients from the soil. The first task of a newly-converted Christian is to establish and maintain vital contact with the source of all grace, with Jesus. "Happy indeed is the man /... whose delight is the law of the Lord / and who ponders his law day and night. / He is like a tree that is planted / beside the flowing waters, / that yields its fruit in due season / and whose leaves shall never fade; / and all that he does shall prosper" (Psalm 1:1-3). A tree whose roots reach into "flowing waters" has non-stop access to the most essential resource for growth. Just so, it is most important to help the newly-converted establish and develop the relationship that will sustain them. This is not primarily a matter of external conformity but of learning to draw spiritual "nutrients" from Scripture, personal prayer, and the Sacraments.
  • GROWTH - MORAL TRANSFORMATION. "But now that you have been freed from sin [soil - a new nature] and have become slaves of God [seed - relationship with Christ], the benefit that you have leads to sanctification" (Romans 6:22). One who continues to foster a relationship with Christ, who grows in love for him, will increasingly desire to conform his life after Christ's pattern with the resources that enrich him. We are all like metal being forged, but metal that has not spent time in the furnace of prayer will not bend, will not yield even to the hammer.
  • FRUIT - CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION. The fully mature plant turns its attention to the environment around it by producing fruit and seed. In the broadest terms, this means transforming every sphere of human activity to reflect the values of the Kingdom. It is interesting to me that plants produce both fruit and seed - fruit which satisfies today's hunger, seed which anticipates tomorrow's needs.

PROPAGATING PROCESS

I believe that the development of the "religious mindset" is largely a consequence of attempting to cultivate the visible, above-ground growth and fruit, i.e. moral and cultural transformation, while neglecting the invisible prerequisites of soil and seed. This happens so easily because growth and fruit are measurable, tangible. And in some measure, they are legitimate to look to as evidence of the previous two since you can't readily see the status of the seed under the ground.

But any attempt to equate the latter stages of this process - especially moral transformation - with the former is as ineffective as taking a branch from a tree and sticking it in the ground. It may resemble a tree for a time, but the lack of roots will soon cause it to shrivel up and waste away.

Developing our ministries around process is not an easy task. It means having to strike a delicate balance between guiding the mature and meeting the needs of the initiate. The first step is to acknowledge that honoring process is necessary and to understand what that process looks like. Only then can truly effective strategies be generated.