Arts and Culture

Being Human Means Being on a Mission

by Father Robert Lauder

First in a series
AS PART OF the adult education course on the Catholic novel that I moderate every semester at The Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, I had to give a lecture on Joseph F. Girzone’s novel “The Homeless Bishop” (Maryknoll). Readers of this column may be familiar with Girzone’s very popular novel “Joshua.” Because the plot of “The Homeless Bishop” centers around the value of identifying with the poor, I knew that my lecture somehow had to deal with poverty.

The name of theologian Johannes Metz came to mind and, though I had never read any book by him, I suspected that his writing might give me some insights that I could use in my lecture.

Another reason that I knew that I had to deal with poverty was that in every discussion group with which I have been involved in the last 50, and there have been many, people at some point express their feelings of guilt at being part of the First World while people in the Third World are starving.  It is not that I think that I have some solution to world poverty, but I knew that somehow in the lecture I had to at least bring up the problem. I also had to at least comment on why Jesus speaks so often about the poor in the gospels and what the Church in her teaching means by “the preferential option for the poor.”

Metz was a disciple of the great German theologian Karl Rahner, but he eventually moved away from Rahner’s theology and constructed his own theological vision.  I suspect that he thought Rahner’s theology dealt too much with the individual and did not focus sufficiently on community and social problems. How accurate that depiction of Rahner’s theology is I am not qualified to say.

In preparing to give my lecture, I found a small book by Metz entitled “Poverty of  Spirit” (Translated by John Drury, Newman Press). The book is a gem.  Within its pages are wonderful philosophical and theological insights into the mystery of the human person and the mystery of God.  My guess is that one reason that I enjoyed reading Metz’s book so much is that the philosophy that the German thinker uses is very similar to the philosophy I teach students at St. John’s University, Jamaica.

At the beginning of his foreword, Metz writes:
“Becoming a human being involves more than conception and birth. It is a mandate and a mission, a command and a decision.  A human being has an open-ended relationship to himself.  He does not possess his being unchallenged; he cannot take his being for granted as God does his…. Other animals, for example, survive in mute innocence and cramped necessity. With no future horizons, they are what they are from the start; the law of their life and being is spelled out for them, and they resign themselves to these limits without question.

“Man, however, is challenged and questioned from the depths of his boundless spirit. Being is entrusted to him as a summons, which he is to accept and consciously acknowledge… To become man through the exercise of his freedom – that is the law of his Being.”

After I read the first two pages of the foreword, I was hooked. Anyone who reads this column with some regularity probably knows why. Metz expresses succinctly, yet powerfully, what I consider some of the most important truths about the human person, truths I teach, write about, discuss and try to live.

That being  human is both a mandate and a mission, a command and a decision, I find provocative, exciting, challenging and even inspiring.  By creating us as conscious free persons, God has built into our nature a call. We are not finished.  Our lives are adventures in grace, adventures in trying to be less self-centered and selfish and more unselfish and loving.  We are creatures summoned by God, called by God to live our lives as gifts: gifts to God and to others. This is the ultimate meaning of being human.  There is a purpose and a goal and a direction built into our nature as persons.

We are magnetized by God, but we are free.  We can turn away from the mandate and the mission. We are the only creatures in our experience who are free. This is a tremendous blessing, but it also involves risk. How we direct our freedom will decide the type of persons we become.

God is creating us from nothing but because of our freedom we can influence our destiny.  Recognition of our dependence on God can help us cultivate poverty of spirit and also make us more aware of our freedom.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.