The following dialogue has been common fare for me these days. Conversation Partner: "What are you working on this summer, Brother?" Me: "Ah, my thesis" (The 'ah' is important, it makes me sound more 'academic'). And then I cringe... waiting for that question––the one I know is coming, because even I would ask it––"Oh, and what is your thesis about?"
This is the hard part, because I don't have a ready answer. However, I had a splendid idea––well, I thought so, anyhow.
Now, I'm the guy who refused to explain his previous thesis (in architecture, in case you wondered) to his potential employers, asking them to read about it in his portfolio. So, it stands to reason that I will find a way to weasel out of talking to everyone I meet about this thesis (in theology) too. Here's my plan. Step 1: write about it in a blog. Step 2: carry around a card with the address to preachingfriars.org. Step 3: direct anyone who asks to read about it online! Now, no one loses in this approach, right? This is win-win-win... everyone goes home happy! Ice cream and soda after the ballgame!
Four years ago, as a religious newly in simple vows, I had just begun daily praying the Office of Readings and during my first summer plodding through it, I encountered a very striking reading. During Week Seventeen of Ordinary Time, I discovered Basil the Great's Homily no. 6, Destruam horrea mea, on the parable from Luke where Jesus tells of a man who had an extra-abundant harvest, decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones, completed his task, and then the next day he died, unable to enjoy his overflowing wealth: "You fool! The Lord will demand your life from you this very night!" A well-known and oft-cited portion of Basil's homily is the line "The clothes you keep put away [belong to] the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse [belong to] those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth [belongs to] the needy" (see translation in: On Social Justice: Basil the Great, by C. Paul Schroeder). This homily was one of about 4 or 5, depending on how you count, in which this saint and Doctor of the Church wrote about what we today would call social ethics or justice.
The amazing thing about Basil's homilies is not so much that he spoke about justice in the 4th century in Asia Minor, but that he spoke so radically. One might argue that he took the Sermon on the Mount and Christ's other teachings more seriously than we today could even begin to––and, in another thesis, one might start to wonder why or if modern Catholic social teaching differs with Basil and his contemporaries on private property and usury. Consider, for example, this quote from the same sermon: "Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common––this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption" (Ibid., 7). One could make the claim here that Basil takes a few things for granted: 1) all the goods are meant for all the people, 2) private property is an invention of mankind, and it derives from the sin of avarice, 3) that property and riches are inevitably built up by injustice and dubious practices. "This saying is hard," they said about Jesus' teaching on the Eucharist (Cf. John 6), and today we hang on to these words and use them to challenge those who deny that the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ ... but we don't do similarly with what Jesus said about property: "Go and sell... and give to the poor". Why is that? (asked he, naïvely). Regardless of the answer to that question, we can note that there is certainly a disconnect between, on the one hand, the possible world that Basil seems to be imagining in his sermons on justice and the poor, and on the other hand, the reality of his contemporary world of 'Late Antiquity' (re: Fourth Century AD) not to mention even our modern world.
So, here's the answer to the question that you probably only asked out of politeness: My thesis is about... What kind of world was Basil living in, and what kind of world was he imagining when he wrote and gave these sermons? How does he construct this imagined world? What I hope to get at is the 'possible' future world that Basil emphatically and vividly portrays in his preaching. The second question was, did Basil see this world as a utopia... was it fanciful? Or did he believe precisely in its possibility or even its necessity for Christians according to his interpretation of the Gospel?
One might ask now, why write this? What's it got to do with today... how does this research help people? Basil preached most of these sermons in a time of great famine and drought in Caesarea, a city in the region of ancient Cappadocia (central Turkey). The hungry were dying, and Basil saw the misery of many as the direct result of the greed of a few. No one needs now for me to draw the connection to our modern problems––consider to begin with, the subprime housing loan crisis. Yet, the point is this: if Basil imagined a possible world, and he wrote and spoke about it forcefully... was he successful? Can we learn from him? Is the Gospel, at face value, (you know, the same Gospel that says, for instance, "Go and sell what you own and give it to the poor")... is it, dare I say it, practical?