What does “bearing witness” to our culture look like?

Rev. Paul Scalia calls us to imitate ancient prophets in final lecture of Archbishop’s Series

Therese Bussen

Bearing witness to our culture hangs on this deeply personal question: “Are we convinced that what has been given to us will satisfy the human heart?”

It’s a question that Reverend Paul Scalia, son of late Justice Antonin Scalia, asked the crowd in his talk March 21, the final lecture of the season in the Archbishop’s Lecture Series.

Titled “The Word of the Lord Came to Me…,” his talk explained how ancient prophets show us how to be examples of our faith in our modern culture. The most important lesson from their stories is that we first have deep conviction in that which we bear witness to.

“Authenticity requires that these words come from within us — only our personal investment in the Gospel can make us authentic prophets,” Reverend Scalia said.

We especially need to be connected to that firm conviction inside ourselves in the areas where the culture needs it most; namely, marriage and family life, Reverend Scalia said.

He outlined other various areas where we can imitate the ancient prophets, who were seen as “odd” in their respective countries at the time. He referred to Flannery O’Connor, who is attributed to the quote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

“Bearing witness to the truth might make you odd,” Reverend Scalia said. The ancient prophets were often seen as outsiders in their own homes, and we must be ready to not fit in as well. We are “strangers in a strange land,” especially as people in our culture are increasingly indifferent toward religion.

“This religious indifference is a challenge for the Church as well. [We’ve] had to scale back. Denver is fairly unique in its growth,” Reverend Scalia said.

March 21, 2017, Denver, Colorado Archbishop Lecture Series featuring Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington speaking on the topic of the importance of prophetic Catholic witness in the culture today. Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

March 21, 2017, Denver, Colorado Archbishop Lecture Series featuring Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington speaking on the topic of the importance of prophetic Catholic witness in the culture today. Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

He said that we also need to be witnesses to both the past and the future. This doesn’t mean we are harbingers of doom; rather, we “proclaim not what will happen, but what God has already done,” Reverend Scalia said.

“The failure to remember what God has done creates a mistrust of what God will do in the future,” Reverend Scalia continued. “Our role should be one of giving hope, especially to those who are suffering.”

Our testimony message needs to be this hope, “that the Lord is trustworthy,” he said.

He also noted that acts of charity and the suffering we experience for love of God and neighbor are the biggest opportunities to bear bold witness to our culture.

“If we aren’t suffering, we are compromising on our love of the Lord, or of our love for people,” Reverend Scalia said. “The Lord allows suffering as a way of understanding the sadness and pain in his own heart.”

“Suffering, in the end, is the most convincing witness to the truth,” he added.

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.