Love before Knowledge: The search for portable truth

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Sep 2005

Serving on a Cursillo weekend I was once struck by the attitude of a priest sampling it for the first time. He was himself, he told us, a trained Catechist, who had years of experience of putting on courses. For various reasons he simply wouldn’t do things this way. He had thawed out by the Sunday, but his haughty negativity was a severe challenge while it lasted.

I need to explain here, perhaps, that the Cursillo experience is essentially one of Christian community. Its central message – that each of us is equally and infinitely loved – is conveyed not so much through a sophisticated verbal theology as through the manner in which the largely lay Cursillo team welcome, show compassion for, and entertain the first-timers, the ‘candidates’ – who are often casualties of our intellectually meritocratic culture. The expert priest’s problem was that his greater intellectual sophistication gave him a vantage point from which he felt obliged to be negative about the unsophisticated doctrinal content of the course.

I remember the incident as an illustration of something that I believe to be seriously blocking the development of the church at present: the apparent belief of so many experts, and of much of the hierarchy, that to move lay people into Christian commitment there is a need for the delivery of a very substantial body of knowledge – knowledge that only they can be trusted to determine, package and deliver. As often as not it tends to be a substantial sampling of the Catechism.

What is called Catholic ‘adult education’ tends as a consequence to be a heavy, texty, affair, couched in a heavily Latinated terminology – and costing so much to deliver that only a few people can afford it. Furthermore, it is, in my experience, difficult to see the positive results in terms of the buzzing parishes we would all like to see. Those who receive this experience may know more – but not what to do next.

Already, of course, I need to guard myself against the conclusion that I am anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary: I have been a teacher for most of my adult life, preparing adolescents for higher education, and so have a considerable stake in raising the intellectual horizons of lay people generally. But to do this we need first of all to develop the confidence of the learner, and the present content-heavy method of Catholic instruction very often has the opposite effect. Too often it mistakenly implies that the more that is known of the detailed minutiae of Catholic doctrine, the closer one necessarily comes to a grasp of the whole : that quantity equals quality.

I am now convinced that what the magisterium should do is what every good teacher always does: decide on what belongs at the summit of what it calls the hierarchy of truths, and teach that as a priority, right from the start.

What is it that lies there? What is it above all we must not only know, but keep present in mind at all times, as an encapsulation of all that the Catechism, and the Gospels contain? Knowledge is a diffuse, potentially limitless thing, which we cannot carry in toto as we go through our day. While we think of one thing, a lot of others ‘slip out the back’ – perhaps something vital. So wouldn’t it be useful to state, in the shortest form possible, the one vital thing we must all never forget? Wouldn’t this small burden of truth be portable at all times, a summary of all that lies below it in the hierarchy of truths?

I have thought about this for some considerable time over the past decade, and propose the following:

The most important thing for a Christian to know
Is that the most important thing for her/him to DO
Is NOT to KNOW
But to LOVE.

To establish this, I feel I need only point out what Jesus said four times in the Gospel of John, and what was repeated nine further times in the new Testament. He never emphasised knowing as such – ‘being right’: the instruction is to love, first and always. Knowledge is important, and especially knowledge of the basic story related in the creeds and the Rosary, but it must never be given a greater importance than the obligation to love, and must always be interpreted in the light of that principle.

If quantitative knowledge is given primacy, love and relationship are very likely to be lost – and mere intellectual ostentation to be in the ascendant. The Crusaders, or at least their leaders, knew the creeds, but their primary obligation of love had been tragically left behind in the tabernacles of Europe. The Inquisition – the source of so much continuing alienation from Christianity – was grounded on the same sad foundation.

Further, the primacy given by Jesus to love is a call, not primarily to endless study, but to relationship – especially, first of all (in the teaching context), the relationship of teacher to student. The light burden Jesus gave us – if we can remember it – will establish from the start between student and teacher the great truth they both share: because they are both equally and infinitely loved, they are bound in love to one another – and therefore bound to respect one another also. Knowing what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the student has already completed the most important part of the course.

Further, from that very first moment the student is called into action also. There is no need to complete the course to discover what its most important application should be – the ‘bottom line’. The primacy of the obligation to love can enlighten, and move, from the first moment it is learnt and experienced.

Take the case of a highly qualified catechist tasked with the delivery of one of those substantial courses we too often see. His professional obligation – to ‘complete the course’ – is quite likely to be oppressive from the very start. Furthermore these times, it is likely that course members will have problems with an obscure terminology – and even with some point of doctrine. Suppose an argument develops, and the catechist stands firm to what he believes the Catechism says. Or, more likely, frustration or boredom set in soon after the initial enthusiasm. And course members walk away, never to return.

Two things have happened here. First, the catechist has actually lost sight of what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths. In the pressures of the ‘big course’ the key truth has indeed ‘dropped out the back’. Second, some of his students may now never find it – even though it was deliverable in the very first minutes of the course. Nothing of any great importance has been taught, when something vital could have been.

Furthermore, this approach would address the problem that lies at the heart of the issue of ‘non reception’ – such a vital issue these days. Lay people tend to feel talked down to – and the sheer heaviness of what is proposed is often very intimidating to them. This is a very bad start to the teacher-student relationship – the so obvious inequality between teacher and student. It is a recipe for trouble, tedium, group shrinkage, even total failure, right from the start.

But if both teacher and student share from the start, and never allow to drop out of sight, what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, there is a continuing basic equality between them. The student has understood the most vital thing a Christian must know, and must not forget, and so has succeeded in establishing his/her competence and intelligence.

I would argue strongly that the failure to lighten and organise Catholic instruction as radically as this lies at the heart of its current problems. We are so worried by the task of ‘passing on the faith’, and so concerned to leave nothing out, that we have often actually dropped that beautiful burden – disguised it, concealed it, lost it – and many children and adults now never receive it. Taking exception to some rebuff or scandal or frustration – or an endless diet of doctrine that seems never to ‘cut to the chase’ – they leave the church and proclaim that it is a tyrannical institution that indoctrinates people.

And so it does if it puts knowledge – especially large quantities of it – before love itself.

I fear that this is precisely what the magisterium has too often unwittingly done. Proclaiming the Catechism as the best answer to all our problems, and failing to privilege love over knowledge, it has privileged quantitative knowledge over love – failing to deliver what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths.

Binding itself also, apparently, to non-accountability and secrecy it has failed to learn that these are the only two parents that scandal needs – severely damaging the bond of love and trust that binds the whole church together. Although scandal after scandal has revealed that the secular implementation of the Christian principle of accountability has given more protection and vindication to injured Catholic children and their families than the hierarchy’s own (still non-accountable) apparatus, it refuses to learn from that experience.

One must ask: if the magisterium has forgotten what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, and refuses to learn from every lesson it receives on its own apparent inability to love – and on how it might love better – by what argument can it justify its authority to teach? Doesn’t, for example, the Cursillo, which, at its best, prioritises love, compassion and relationship over knowledge, teach better?

I ask this question especially on behalf of those theologians who have been silenced for supposed heterodoxy – and also on behalf of those committed supporters of orthodoxy who often fear that they are considered merely ‘company men’ because they have not been silenced.

The excuse given for this coercion – that ‘the faithful’ would be endangered by the ideas of powerful intellectuals – is entirely misconceived, even, I suspect, bogus. Those without an interest in fine theological distinctions, but with no shortage of spiritual intelligence, very quickly lose interest in those distinctions – so long as the basic truths of the creeds are not in dispute. Knowing the church of their own local community as a loving institution, they are content to know what the worriers apparently do not: that loving is more important than knowing. Those who love and pray do not give primacy to knowledge or ‘big ideas’ – but to love. And if they suspect that any thinker is challenging their faith in that principle, they typically lose interest also in what he, or she, may have to teach.

Furthermore, such people are now, in parts of Northern Ireland, finding that the same small but beautiful burden is carried by many Christians of the reformed traditions. Knowing and sharing the principle of equal respect they meet and discuss what is shared with surprise and joy. Feeling comfortable they even explore differences with curiosity rather than fear, and often with mutual enrichment.

And this raises another question. Why should relationships between Catholics and other Christian traditions be troubled by the supposed problem of merging and reconciling vast theologies, vast bodies of knowledge? If trust and love are given precedence, what the different church’s theologians may disagree about is relatively insignificant in both relational and ‘truth’ terms. That is a matter for experts – but not for those whose primary goal is friendship and cordiality – the essence of their faith.

Why then is priority given to knowledge over love? I suggest that this has to do with a totally mistaken historical conception of what Christianity is all about. It is not about ‘my truth’, but the obligation to love even those whose truth is different.

My truth is, of course, where I stand – and Christians must know where to stand: but if that place does not include the primary obligation of love even of those who stand elsewhere, it lacks something essential to Christianity. It is not the very best place to stand. Early disputes, and the sad history of Christianity’s connection with the state, misled us all into what can be called ‘competitive knowing’: my truth is greater than your truth, and must therefore prevail. Jesus never said so – he simply lived and died for the beautiful truth – that love cannot coerce anyone – and is the primary obligation of a Christian.

That beautiful truth is now increasingly shared by Christians of other denominations. (I heard Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, proclaim it movingly in Limavady in early January.) It is now highly desirable that the Catholic magisterium should receive it also – before it embarrasses itself, and the wider church, still further.

If knowledge continues to be prioritised over love and accountability, it will be clear that this can only be for reasons of power, not love. It will be revealed beyond question that the magisterium imitates rather than challenges our meritocratic culture, by deploying knowledge to avoid relinquishing status.

And the most beautiful truth, the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the truth any child can carry – that in God’s eyes we all enjoy the same high status – will have been obscured and lost by those who tell us their primary obligation and intention is to teach and to preserve it.

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