The Parable of the Sower, by James Tissot (1886-94).
The Beauty That Beckons Us: An Introduction to the Theology of Fr. John Navone, SJ | Dr. Eric Cunningham | HPR
(As HPR’s way of honoring the lifelong work of our brother Jesuit, Fr. John Navone, SJ, we shall run Gonzaga University’s Dr. Cunningham’s essay in two parts over the next two months.)
This work was written to provide an introduction to some of the essential themes contained in the spirituality of Fr. John Navone, an Italian-American Jesuit theologian. Fr. Navone’s long career, as a priest, scholar, educator, and author, has yielded a rich and multifaceted body of work that offers its readers a means of negotiating creatively with the debilitating complexities of the modern world. Navone’s work encourages us to regard the contexts of our everyday lives as opportunities for grace, beauty, and self-transcendence in the love of God—the God in whom, St. Paul proclaims—“we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Fr. Navone’s work speaks with particular power to Christians of the 21st century, cast adrift, as we are, upon a dark sea of moral relativity, historical uncertainty, cultural aimlessness, and widespread indifference to humanity’s true relationship to a good and loving God.
When comparing Navone’s theology to that of other prominent religious thinkers of our age, it seems to occupy a unique place, both in terms of its literary qualities and range of concerns. While thoroughly grounded in a mainstream and “magisterial” Roman Catholic worldview, Navone’s work exhibits neither the structured dialectical logic of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), nor the circular rhetorical mysticism of Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II). Navone’s spirituality is, to employ a generally overused and often misused term, holistic, treating with equal consideration the component parts of human concerns, the overarching scheme of spiritual reality, and the discursive connective tissue that holds the parts of human life to the superstructures of the divine order.
Navone’s body of work does not provide us with a systematic presentation of any one central idea, such as we might find in the philosophy of his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, nor is it a cornucopia of incisive commentary on nearly everything under the sun, as we find in the works of Navone’s lifelong friend and Jesuit colleague Fr. James Schall. It is rather, a set of core themes that rotate like satellites around the “solar” idea that God’s Love is the “ultimate context,” i.e., the origin, end, operative process, and aesthetic glory of all existence. It is a spirituality that delights in the love of God and seeks to share that delight through questions, conversations, and journeys of the mind.
Given the holistic and humanistic quality of his spirituality, Navone does not tell us what we should do, or how we should think, or even what we should be; rather, he describes for us the way things are in God’s creation, and illuminates the workings of a multivalent ecology of spiritual and material relationships. His spirituality avoids critical theory and formal apologetics, and largely sidesteps the political partisanship that has unfortunately tainted the theological discussions of the postwar American Church. I suppose we owe a debt of gratitude to the fact that Fr. Navone spent 45 years in Rome, detached from, although never unfamiliar with, the debilitating and intellectually shallow disputes that have taken prominence in the theological life of the Catholic academy in America. His thought and writing exhibit a kind of leisurely elegance; something we more readily associate with a patient and cultured mind secure in its traditions, than the agitated spirit of an ideologue struggling to overturn the world.
We can also thank Rome for another persistent feature of Fr. Navone’s spirituality. By this, I mean an undeniable worldliness, a term I use in the most complimentary fashion, even if, when used in a religious context, can often connote a lack of sincerity with regard to spiritual commitments.