The Beauty That Beckons Us

An Introduction to the Theology of Fr. John Navone, SJ

The Parable of the Sower, by James Tissot (1886-94).

(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.)

Part One


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. John Navone is a deeply spiritual man who happens to be in love with the world, the God who created it, and the people who inhabit it. While thoroughly religious in his worldview, he is comfortable in, and with, secular society, and enjoys the friendship of people on many continents and in all walks of life. His theology is clearly expressive of the content soul, warm heart, and curious mind that all of his friends have learned to cherish.

If I had to place Navone’s theology on the spectrum of intellectual history, I would classify it as belonging to a mystical branch (if there is such a thing!) of high modernity. Navone is very much a man of his times, and his life, in many ways, has been evidence of the fulfillment of that apotheosis of Enlightenment civilization, the “American Dream.” He was born in 1930 to hard-working Italian immigrants who settled in Seattle, Washington. He grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, and like other members of his generation, came of age too late to be a soldier, and too early to be a bohemian—in other words, more or less invested in the promises and prospects of a peaceful modern world. The confluence of the Old World Catholicism inherited from his family, and the progressive optimism acquired during a postwar youth spent in a booming western city seem to have left him with the abiding conviction that the world is, and ought to be, a rational place; that human beings can, and ought to, produce a functional and fair society, and that the Catholic Church can, and ought to, serve as a guiding influence in the production of a holy and just world civilization. He was present for a wide range of world transformations, present to see a healthy ecumenical movement unravel into a bitter and fractured multiculturalism; to see a visionary postwar internationalism degenerate into a homogenizing, consumption driven globalism. Throughout a succession of “new world orders,” serving a Church that suffered radical reorderings of its own—with alarming losses in parishes, parishioners, and vocations to the religious life—Navone never lost his faith, neither in the Church nor in the rational modern world. Navone does not “deconstruct,” and he has never started any new evangelical movements—rather he has sought to adorn the sound and solid edifices of Christendom with intelligent, devotional works that bear the traces of a stable, satisfied, and highly disciplined mind.

Navone enjoyed great success during his active career in the Society of Jesus. Entering the order from Seattle University in 1949, he finished his undergraduate studies at the Jesuit novitiate at Sheridan, Oregon, in 1953. He then went to Mount St. Michael seminary in Spokane, Washington, earning his Master’s degree in Philosophy in 1956. A year after his ordination to the priesthood in 1962, he completed his theology training at Regis College (University of Toronto) in 1963, and then went to Rome, where, after three years he received his doctorate in Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. His dissertation, History and Faith in the Thought of Dr. Alan Richardson, was published in 1966 by SCM Press of London, an Anglican theological publishing house. Navone is justifiably proud of the fact—evidence of his ecumenical turn of mind, to be sure—that so many of his major works have been enthusiastically received by non-Catholic publishers. Seventeen years in theological and intellectual formation prepared him ably for the next phase of his career.

Navone assumed duties as a professor in Pontifical Gregorian University’s Department of Theology in 1967, and served faithfully in that capacity until his retirement in 2009. In addition to being a popular instructor and prolific author during his tenure at the “Greg,” he also enjoyed his unofficial role as an all-purpose interlocutor between Rome, European society, and the American media. During the 1970s and 1980s, Navone was equally at home among the power brokers of the Vatican and the international glitterati. Claiming among his friends, such luminaries as Gore Vidal and Franco Zefferelli, he also holds fond memories of conversations with Tennessee Williams, Sir Harold Macmillan, and a list of other friends and associates that reads like a “Who’s Who” of international notables of the late 20th century. It is because, not in spite of, his easy attraction to people of all types, that his theology has acquired over the years, not only a rich sophistication in thought, but a deep and abiding warmth of spirit. It was this very real and sensible warmth that drew me immediately into his friendship upon our first meeting in 2010.

Father Navone had just returned to the Jesuit Community at Gonzaga University from Rome, ready to explore the strange terrain of working retirement. Within a few weeks of arriving in Spokane, he had offered his teaching services to the Catholic Studies Program, and his advising expertise to our local Bishop White Seminary. As a member of the Catholic Studies faculty, I came into frequent contact with him in the planning of seminars, and we became close collaborators. Our occasional chats over coffee in the sitting rooms at Jesuit House evolved into a weekly ritual, and these meetings became the genesis of this particular volume.

This first part of my work deals with a set of theological themes that are both open-ended and interlocking—like Navone’s spirituality itself, the book is a map defined less by the expanse of the terrain that it charts than by the multiplicity of routes that connect its various points. I have named and ordered the chapters according to my own purposes and interpretations—working essentially from 1) contexts to 2) the dynamic of the question to 3) narrative theology, 4) process of conversion, 5) failure, 6) beauty, and 7) communion, a trajectory of both increasing individuation of awareness, and outward expression of activity. This progression of themes is, by no means, ordained by Fr. Navone—his students and commentators are cheerfully divided in their opinions of what makes his spirituality meaningful to them. Given the mutually referential nature of all Navone’s themes (which I believe gives evidence of the consistency and coherency of his thought), it seems plausible that any ordering of these themes would “work”; it is equally likely that any number of differently named themes might be drawn from his works by readers with different questions and concerns. If this book achieves its primary aim, new readers of Navone will explore his remarkable works and form conclusions of their own.

The second part of the book is a practical application—a “way” of Navonean spirituality that I have adopted for personal use over the course of many months of learning from Fr. Navone and integrating the precepts of his theology into my own prayer life. In constructing this summary, I have drawn upon Navone’s many published works; books, articles, reviews, and essays—I have been uniquely favored in having been given access to his syllabi, lesson guides, and the instruction notes he prepared for his classes in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. My weekly chats with Fr. Navone over the last several years have also left me with several small notebooks filled with his informal commentary, observations, jokes, and his ever-flowing “obiter dicta.”

While the temptation has been great to play Boswell to Fr. Navone’s Samuel Johnson, I did not want this book to become a catalog of minutiae, or an overstuffed academic analysis of his six decades of theological work. It would be an injustice to Fr. Navone’s career and to his temperament to undertake anything of either too serious or too anecdotal a nature at this point in his life. In the decades to come, trained theologians will have the opportunity to place Fr. Navone and his work in proper historical and scholarly context. I have tried, in the spirit of St. Therese of Lisieux, to stay “little,” and to offer a hint of the spirit of a conversation with Fr. Navone in order to trigger the mental stimuli and prompts of inquiry into the nature of God that I have been blessed to enjoy, and to bring my delight with Fr. John Navone to a wider circle of new friends.

Him in Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: The Contexts of a Christian Anthropology

At the foundation of John Navone’s spirituality lies the essential concerns of determining who we are, what we are, and how we operate in life, that is, in identifying the contexts in which we live and act as creatures of God in a world that is clearly not of our own making. “There are many contexts of our knowing and loving consciousness as human subjects and responsible agents,” he writes, “(and) God transcends all these contexts.” In other words, there is no aspect of our being or doing that does not spring from the “self-giving Creator, Sustainer, and Destiny” that we call God. God is the author and the ultimate context of our existence.1

How is it that we come to know God as the core reality in the context of our lives? According to Navone, the contexts of reality—of what he calls “actuality”—is experienced in three ways. First, it is “that within which we experience anything directly, as the given situation of the real,” second, it is “that which leads us continually to transcend each and every object in search of the explanation of the object,” and third, it is “the source which evokes and opens up the possibility of all human self-transcendence.”2 God-as-ultimate context, then, is an ontological reality that 1) provides the very ground of existence, 2) gives us evidence of that existence, and 3) offers the possibility that that existence can be transcended in a higher stratum of communion with the Creator. We can detect in this construct the manifestly Trinitarian nature of Navone’s theology, which he elaborates by correlating the tripartite context of reality to the three Persons of the Godhead: fullness of being (Father), self-manifestation of being (Son), and the outpouring of being in creative transformation (The Holy Spirit).

Acknowledging the reality of God-as-ultimate context allows us to construct an authentic Christian anthropology, which is to say, an anthropology based on the relational network informed by the Trinity and performed at every level of human experience. In Navone’s Christian anthropology, the human person is also a triune organism, consisting of the human subject (the integrative center of thought and affective consciousness), the human agent (the acting and response-able decision maker), and the relational being (the integration of the subjective consciousness and the responsive agent, capable of growth and transcendence in the various contexts of human experience). The purpose of a Christian anthropology is to illuminate the process by which divine “contexts” engender human relationships, how human relationships promote communion with God and man, and how communion brings us toward the intimate and complete restoration of friendship with God that constitutes our salvation.

Navone uses the following diagram to show the levels of relationship between the human subject, the object world, and the context of God-as-ultimate reality.

The existence and operation of these “levels” are predicated on two modes of divine being-and-activity: the first is the movement of the Immanent God in and through the human ecology, and establishing, through his call and through the outpouring of love into the hearts of his creatures, the very basis of existence in all contexts of awareness; the second is the individual consciousness moving out, responding to God’s call, and animated by God’s love, moving ever toward the Transcendent through the proper fulfillment of all intervening relationships with the community, society, and state. Here we have the ultimate context of reality in its most fundamental mode of operation. From the human standpoint, the subject first experiences itself existing in Love as an individuated entity, and responds to the call that Love necessitates, moving “vertically” and “horizontally” through expanding stages of relationships toward communion with both the world and the world-transcending God, essentially “closing the circuit” of Self-giving Love.

Specifically, these levels, or contexts of relationship are:

The intrapersonal context, or, “the holy of holies of the innermost self.”3 This is the level in which the human subject apprehends and responds to the immediate questions raised by its raw encounter with existence. From the standpoint of a personal spirituality, the intrapersonal context can be thought of as the site of interactivity between the physical body and the soul. The interpersonal context is the level in which the human subject responds to the reality of its interconnectedness with family and friends, and uses its encounters with other subjects as a means of discerning the moral quality of its own activities and aspirations.

The social context is the level of encounters outside the circle of family and immediate friends, a level that invites the cultivation of civility, social harmony, and communion with a broader cross-section of humanity.

The national context brings the human subject into relationship with other members of his national community, with a broader set of obligations and opportunities, in particular, the communication of God’s love in the national sphere through service and shared obligation, leavening the competitive and egoistic impulses that generally dominate political life.

The international context represents the widest possible sphere of global inter-relationship, reminding the human subject that its loyalties and obligations for active love are not limited to self, tribe, society, or nation, but extend out into the whole world. As the limit of subjective awareness and agency, the international context marks the boundary between the contextual realm of the human subject, and the realm of the Transcendent, which is entered through the perfection of Friendship with the Indwelling God, and the perfection of our loving service to others in the various contexts of our lives.

As we seek God, the “self-giving Creator, Sustainer, and Destiny within each context of our relational existence,”4we find that there is no part of our existence that is not completely dependent upon God, and no part of our existence that does not require us to interact with other entities, whether that “other” consists of the objects in the created natural world, or our fellow human beings. The external world, which we take to be a “given” is best apprehended as just that: a given thing—or rather, a gift, presented freely by a loving God who invites us to respond to his divine generosity with love, gratitude, and a desire for friendship in every contextual stratum. Our journey through life, then, is a quest of seeking friendship with the entire created order out of love for God; a conversion to God, in which the love for all categories of life and nature are enriched on the way.

Every human relationship becomes an iteration of the fundamental existential process of “call-and-response,” “love-and-be-loved.” This is why Navone refers to God’s loving action as the ultimate and essential context of reality; not only does it create and sustain reality, but it provides the impetus for all further acts of Creation.

In considering God-as-ultimate-context in terms of this impetus for Creation, we cannot help but note that Love and longing presuppose each other in a world inhabited by a profusion of created beings.

If we accept the premise that each of us is a together-with-all-others within an all-encompassing universe, it follows that the other is both a missing and a complementary part of ourselves. Encountering the other entails the discovery of a singular aspect of ourselves that illuminates and enriches our relational existence.5

It is the outpouring of Love that animates us to seek God through relationships with others, and mandates that we do so by showing us the essentially unfinished quality of our existence. The other is, as Navone suggests, an aspect of ourselves, and shows us the unknown and missing part of who we are.

God-as-ultimate-context is, thus, necessarily alienated from the relentlessly self-empowering consciousness of the modern ego, and this alienation creates a sense of confusion for the modern subject whose tendency is to seek satisfaction through the fulfillment of ego-desires. Only an awareness of the otherness and the authority of God can lead to a just resolution of the manifold crises in human society that self-idolatry inevitably creates. If every ego is absolute, there can be no hope for any human condition outside of a state of sustained “civil war.”

Belief in the Creator, the context of all humankind, is the basis of the dignity and quality of all human beings who share the same Origin-Ground-Destiny. Eugenics, genocide, racism, abortion, exploitation, injustice, nationalism, and the like, implicitly reject God as the context of reality.6

The practical models for our call, conversion, and growth toward divine friendship are contained in the narratives of the Gospels. Indeed, the Gospels provide a clear unfolding of Christian pedagogy that enables us to map out a successful journey to God. In his descriptions of how the Gospels lead us, stage by stage, into the wholeness of communion with God, Navone expands upon the work of fellow Jesuit, Fr. Carlo Martini. Martini’s “Gospel matrix,” or “four manuals” thesis presents the Gospels as textbooks of instruction for students following a path of Christian initiation in the early years of the Church. In Martini’s thesis, invoked frequently by Navone throughout his career, the Gospel of Mark is the “gospel of the catechumen,”7 a text that spoke directly to the new Christians of the Graeco-Roman world, i.e., new followers of Christ who already lived in a religious context, but may not have been able to comprehend the necessity of a “suffering” savior. Mark teaches the catechumen “to accept the new image (of religion) and to enjoy the new experience of God and his love for us in obedience to the demands of the crucified and risen Jesus.”8 The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is a faithful, self-sacrificing servant of God, committed to fulfilling the will of the Father, even if that commitment involved suffering and death.

The Gospel of Matthew is the manual for the newly baptized Christian, and reinforces the initiate’s identity among his new community of believers. Fidelity to the Christian community and execution of one’s moral responsibilities to the ekklesia at the level of social interaction is emphasized in its various discourses.

For the more mature Christian, solid in both personal faith and community allegiance, the combined manual of Luke-Acts depicts the proper orientation and modes of action in the world beyond the local community. The works of St. Luke emphasize for the believer the importance of his or her faith for the world as a whole, and link the activity of believing directly to the imperative to evangelization and giving witness to Christ beyond the borders of one’s local environment.

Finally, as an “advanced” manual of Christian initiation, the Gospel of John brings the mature Christian to a more intimate understanding of the “indwelling God,” and reveals the splendor of the love that constitutes the essential relationship between Christ and his Church. By Martini’s thesis, then, a pedagogical “mastery” of the four Gospels brings the Christian from an initial position on the periphery of the Church to full communion with God in the body of the Christ. Navone’s gesture of raising Martini’s thesis from a historical hypothesis to an integrated piece of his own Christian anthropology serves to highlight the indispensable role of the Gospels to the formation of Christian self-hood. What Navone calls “biblical pedagogy” is more than mere pedagogy. It is a means of eliminating the “self-idolatry” of modern subjectivity by cultivating koinonia in each stage of the Christian anthropological process. It thus operates on both the immanent and transcendent levels of divine activity and animates every level of human activity. The Gospel narratives do not just teach the Christian at various stages of his or her growth—they serve as a fractal representation of the multifaceted context in which we attain salvation, and become, for the Christian, a directly accessible modality of communion itself.

As a final comment on the topic of Christian contexts, it is worth noting the importance Navone placed upon the veneration and imitation of holy men and women. In Jesus Christ himself, as well as in the vast community of exemplars of virtue and holiness throughout history, we are given models for bravery, self-sacrifice, and faith in a corrupted world. The saints and holy people of the Christian tradition show us, paradoxically, both the inevitability of evil, and the means to resist it. By studying the lives, and, more importantly, following the examples of the “heroes, saints, and leaders” of the Church, we can enrich and reinforce the operations of Christian anthropology by making holiness a matter of praxis rather than mere theory, and becoming living examples of God-as-ultimate-context in the pursuit of a life in Christ.

The Question-Raising God

In the simplest sense, we could say that a supreme consciousness whose very essence is to create entities in its image provides sufficient basis for the existence of a world—but God is not merely a world builder, and the relationship of God to his creations is not merely one of mechanistic cause-and-effect. After establishing the contextual bases for a divine and human milieu, Navone proceeds to show us that the world and our various relationships to it are permeated with God’s love, and that this love demands a response. The human impetus to act is, not merely an instinctual reaction to a stimulus called existence, but a conscious response to a question raised in love.

The “Question-Raising God,” another key theme of John Navone’s theology, invites us to consider the full dimensions of existence beyond merely occupying space or metabolizing, and to appreciate the ways in which all aspects of our existence may be seen as the outward expressions of a questioning-and-answering dialectic. To God, we are not beetles in a jar, but free, loving agents who are empowered, not only to answer questions posed by God, but of putting questions to God ourselves. “Our questions about God,” Navone writes, “imply that we are relational,” and they express our attempts to understand ourselves in relationship to Christ.9

Navone finds it a matter of great significance that the first utterance made by God to Adam and Eve in the Garden—“Where are you?”—was a simple question, rather than a list of commands, edicts, or exhortations. The “interrogations” of the question-raising God are an invitation to friendship and a call to responsibility within that friendship. Accordingly, God’s questions to us show us the depths of his love as well as his divine interest in how we may respond. “To know God,” Navone says, “is to experience his question-raising appreciation and concern for our lives both as individuals and as a people.”10 When we look at the unfolding of the historical world, it is not difficult to frame the entire human experience as a species-wide response to the invitation of its Creator to communion. Philosophers such as Karl Löwith have made this very point. In his Meaning in History, Löwith asserts that the contents of history are “variations of one single theme: God’s call and man’s response to it.”11 Our daily, moment-to-moment response to the question, “Where are you?” is only the starting point of a friendship that proceeds to deeper questions, deeper answers, and the final unity of consciousness and spirit with God in eternity. As far as our own questions to God are concerned, the ultimate answer to the longing, yearning, and questioning of the human heart is the palpably real and ever-present incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a relentless asker of questions.

In several of his published works, Navone reminds us that Christ asks 98 different direct questions in the synoptic Gospels, and raises 12 additional questions indirectly in his parables. Christ’s questions challenged his earthly contemporaries, as they challenge us “to growth and development at every level of human life … under God.”12Thus, the “dynamic of the question,” whether it comes from Mary asking the angel Gabriel how a virgin can bear a child, or from Christ himself, asking his Apostles-to-be, “What are you looking for?” is the motive power of the dialectic that propels both history and the pilgrim soul toward salvation. The integration of quest and question form the experience of humanity’s search for God, and what we find in the discovery of the answers—the end of the quest—is the full disclosure of God’s eternal plan for us. The dynamic of this give-and-take is evidence of the free agency of our souls, and proof that our motives, while endlessly interrogated by God, are as freely chosen as our destinies and destinations themselves.

In his notes and lectures, Navone occasionally draws a distinction between the Christ of the gnostic gospel of Thomas, who appears as something of a one-dimensional broadcaster, and the engaged and curious question-asker of the canonical Gospels. What Navone seems to suggest about the gnostic scriptures is that their rejection by Church councils was, not merely a result of their pedagogical inadequacy for maturing Christians, but also a consequence of their depiction of a Christ who was neither interested nor fully engaged with his surroundings. It is Christ’s question-raising character, revealed in the four Gospels, that shows him to be both friend and fully human, and thus capable of shepherding us from the conversion moment of our first questions into the meaning of life through our final “transformation and maturation.”13

In analyzing the qualities of the dynamic of the question, Navone sets forth seven key concepts that will help us summarize this important element of his theology:

The first of these is that conscience is an expression of the human experience of the question-raising Word of God as it addresses humanity in its quest for truth and righteousness in a lifelong process of spiritual growth and development.

The second key concept is that the grace and call of God is operative within all the contexts of human life as the question-raising—and question-answering—holy mystery that constitutes our common origin, common ground of being, and common existential fulfillment.

The third is that human life is lived in the tension between the pulls of grace and the counter-pulls that might lead us to reject the gift of grace. The dynamic of the question resonates with the dynamic of these pulls and counter-pulls, and forces us to inquire of ourselves at any moment who we are and where we are going.

The fourth key concept, which was discussed earlier, is that God is the Ultimate context for all subsidiary contexts in which the knowing and loving human subject operates.

The fifth, derivative of the fourth, is that no true knowledge can be had out of the context of God-as-Ultimate truth. This concept places the dynamic of the question (and the operations of the question-raising God) squarely within Navone’s Christian anthropology.

The sixth is that God, immanently operative as empowering grace, calls for self-transcendence, and helps, through his question-raising word, to overcome the self-idolatry that plagues the modern individual.

Finally, the seventh key concept is the notion that where there is love there are questions. (Amor quaerens intellectum). All forms of love will inspire us to discover what God wills of us in any human context, and will drive our daily quest to do what God wants, and to conform our actions to the holy mystery at the heart of our lives.

Theology of Story

Fr. Andrew Greeley, the celebrated Catholic sociologist and popular novelist, was also a lifelong friend of Fr. Navone’s, and one of the first prominent scholars to comment on the importance of Navone’s narrative theology. In a 1983 commentary on the state of Catholic theological writing, Greely referred to the then emerging trend of narrative theology as the “greatest and … most important theological development of our time.” He identified Navone (along with Fr. John Shea) as one of its two “best practitioners,” claiming that his work was “compatible with, and accessible to, some of the most exciting developments in American social scientific and humanistic thinking at the present time,” and had “immediate practical implications for homiletics, catechetics, and apologetics” (Overview). Of particular interest to Greeley was the “non-academic” quality of Navone’s narrative theology, by which he meant its refreshing lack of the “simplistic politics, shallow economics, cocktail party sociology, and pop psychology” that was rapidly taking hold of academic theology in the 1980s.14

What is this mode of theology that sidesteps academic concerns, yet represents such a critical turn in American thinking? In seeking to define the concept for the attendees at a Lonergan Workshop, Navone suggested that his narrative theology (a term he uses interchangeably with “story theology”) could be thought of as the theologian’s “sustained reflection … on the way we react to, and appropriate, the story of Jesus into our own stories.”15 Rooted in a Christian anthropology, narrative theology teaches us to “know God, in the biblical sense of a covenant love relationship, through participation in the life of the crucified and risen Christ and his covenant community.”16 Affirming Greeley’s observation on its non-academic aims, Navone maintained that his narrative theology was not a critical theology, nor was it beholden to any ideological method for the purpose of drawing dialectical conclusions about the sociopolitical sphere. It aims, rather, for a more rhetorical or analogic understanding of the relationship between text and human life. Narrative theology enriches the relationship between God and humanity by giving us the means to apprehend the stories of the Old and New Testaments—in particular, the narratives of Christ’s mission on earth—and allowing them to work their way into our own consciousness. Narrative theology illuminates the contexts of our life by revealing both the divine mystery and the human relationships expressed in story, and by bringing the inherently relational character of stories into line with our own experiences.

Since story is the only means by which our interpersonal and social reality can be expressed in its cognitive and affective fullness, and since our relationship to God is fundamentally interpersonal and social, it follows that storytelling and storylistening provide the most appropriate means of enabling us to live this relationship.17

In their remarkable study of story theology, Tellers of the Word, Navone and coauthor Fr. Thomas Cooper lay out a systematic analysis of narrative theology which includes both the general phenomenology of storytelling and the specific application—an exposition of the “universal” story of the Christian Gospel. Taking the reader from a set of “propaedeutics” (preliminary studies) in historiography, literature, and philosophy, through a Christological, nine-step ascent to the “end” of undivided unity, Navone and Cooper demonstrate the fullness of the interpersonal drama of a human encounter with Christ. Not only are our lives fully plotted epic narratives (complete, as Aristotle might say, with beginnings, middles, and ends), but dramatic tales undeniably grounded in, and expressive of, God’s own epic—the incarnation of Christ.

The nine theses or “moments” of narrative theology, with brief descriptions, are as follows:

First, human beings are the subjects of their stories. People are “storytelling animals,” i.e., creatures who understand themselves as living a trajectory of experience, and make stories to describe this experience. The subject of the human life-story is an ego-self who experiences life as a continuum of past, present, and future, with a clear consciousness of a beginning and end to his or her story. The ultimate meaning of the life-story can only be seen from the perspective of the end of the story, and we organize our lives around the ends, or personal goals, which we have chosen to constitute the meanings of our lives. The way we live our lives is, essentially, the way we tell our life-story, and a good life-story can only proceed from a mode of sanity, stability, and security—not to mention a willingness to listen to the stories of others by actively engaging with them on an interpersonal level.

The second thesis deals with the craft of storytelling, and moves from the general ground of living-as-story telling to more specific “techniques” of living/telling. The key to the crafting of an authentic life-story is the ability to crafting a comprehensive life-vision, complete with symbolic and psychic complexity, as well as the tools to communicate one’s vision to others.

The third thesis of narrative theology takes up the question of meaning, asserting both that all stories must be comprehensible, and that the ultimate meaning of all life-stories can be found in their grounding in God. Here, one sees the vivid connection between Navone’s assumption of God-as-ultimate context, and the meaning of the narratives that flow from this assumption.

The fourth thesis of narrative moves us away from a basic phenomenology of Christian story theology toward a more concrete application of story theology in the Gospels themselves. It states that God is revealed through human stories, emphasizing the central role of Scripture to the life- story of humanity. Jesus Christ, the great storyteller, is also the subject of the “greatest story ever told,” and his life and passion constitute the core meaning of all human lives.

The fifth thesis raises the key question of Christian conversion, and states that the ground of all stories of Christian conversion is the “gift of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.”18 Navone reintroduces Martini’s model of the four-fold pedagogy of the Gospels, highlighting now their utility as a means of guiding the conversion process of the new believer. In a particularly interesting gesture, Navone links Martini’s four-fold Gospel thesis to Bernard Lonergan’s conversion process, a “multi-level” operation that involves the psychic, intellectual, moral, and religious levels of human experience. Here we see the story-as-conversion vehicle working its way through the intrapersonal level of Navone’s Christian anthropology, drawing the Gospel text into intimate association with the transcending self.

The sixth thesis, or “moment,” in narrative theology is the awareness of Jesus Christ as “the Sacrament who transforms human life-stories. The humanity of Christ offers us several expedient means of realizing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, by appealing to such universal and concrete modes of human experience as “taste,” yet transforms the concrete into the mystical by casting our life-stories and experiences as “icons” of the true Sacrament of Christ.

The seventh thesis of narrative theology is the positing of the Jesus story as the foundation of the Church. Here, the story of our shared membership in the community of the Church also bears an iconic relationship to Jesus’ story, as it constitutes the “telling” of the perfect social image of the Body of Christ.

The eighth thesis reminds us—to use Wordsworth’s phrase (more recently via C.S. Lewis)—to become “surprised by joy” through our encounter with Gospel narratives. The stories of the New Testament are filled with delights, unexpected events, and paradoxes, such as the story of the Good Samaritan, which should amaze us today as much as they often confounded their first listeners.

Finally, the ninth moment of narrative theology is the moment of communion with the Blessed-Trinity-as-icon-of the Undivided God. The ancient dream of all mystics and philosophers, i.e., full unity of consciousness, is found only in the eschatological fulfillment of the story of Christ, which is the story of the Church and story of ourselves. Navone’s Christian anthropology is seen as living in a mutually reflective and productive relationship with the interpersonal story of Jesus Christ. The “end” of Navone’s narrative theology is thus seen to be the full illumination of the iconic relationship between the transcendent God and his earthly creation, mediated by a contextual anthropology that is best represented as a story.

Narrative theology forms the hub of several creative spokes in the great “wheel” of Navone’s spirituality. In addition to permitting a reinterpretation of Martini’s four-fold Gospel hypothesis and a concrete means of recounting the story of the conversion process, narrative theology also provides Navone with a means of framing the germinal form of his aesthetic vision, and a structure for joining the seemingly disparate themes of the question-asking God, communion, and the “quest.” In his exposition of the place of God in travel stories, found in the last part of Finding God in Story (1990), Navone effectively expands the scope of narrative theology, depicting our religious conversion as an epic tale of adventure taken up in response to a nagging existential question, and ending in full communion with God, after a journey fraught with crisis, setbacks, marvels of grace, and the never-failing presence of Christ as guide along the way. Finding God in Story is an aesthetic representation—indeed an icon—of Navone’s Christian anthropology, and marks, in my view, a decided movement in the direction of the theology of aesthetics. As is the case with every turn in Navone’s work, though, the new iteration of the principle enriches, rather than supersedes, the preexisting articulation.

  1. John Navone, unpublished and undated personal class notes on “Spirituality.”
  2. John Navone, unpublished and undated personal class notes on “Contexts.”
  3. John Navone, unpublished and undated personal class notes on “Christian Anthropology.”
  4. Navone, notes on “Spirituality.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Navone, notes on “Contexts.”
  7. John Navone, “Four Gospels: Four Stages of Christian Maturation,” Review for Religious, 39, no. 4 (1980), 559.
  8. Ibid.
  9. John Navone, “The Question-Raising Word of God,” Theology, 90, no. 736 (1980), 289.
  10. Ibid. 288.
  11. Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 184.
  12. Navone, “The Question-Raising God,” 288.
  13. John Navone, “The Dynamic of the Question in the Gospel Narrative,” Milltown Studies, 17 (1986), 81.
  14. Andrew Greeley, “Exclusive,” Overview, May, 1983.
  15. John Navone, “The Promise of Narrative Theology: A Strategy of Communication,” Lonergan Workshop, 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 235.
  16. Ibid. 231.
  17. Ibid. 236.
  18. John Navone and Thomas Cooper, Tellers of the Word (New York: Le Jacq Publishing), 1981, xxiii.
Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD About Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD

Eric Cunningham is an associate professor of history at Gonzaga University. A specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history, he received an MA in modern Japanese literature from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a Ph.D. in history from the same institution in 2004. Cunningham's research interests include Japanese intellectual history, Zen Buddhism, Anthroposophy, Catholicism, psychedelia, and postmodernism. He is the author of Hallucinating the End of History: Nishida, Zen, and the Psychedelic Eschaton (Academica Press, 2007), and Zen Past and Present (Association for American Studies, 2011). Cunningham lectures and writes on a wide range of topics, including Japanese history, film, and contemporary Catholic culture.


  1. John Navone, S.J. John Navone, S.J. says:

    My dinner with Sir Harold Macmillan and his daughter at the Venerable English College in Rome as guests of the future cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was a truly peak experience, made especially memorable by Sir Harold’s after dinner talk about the significance of Rome as the integrating center of Western Civilization. Later, my book Communicating Christ, published in England, was chosen as the theme for a weeklong Anglican Clergy Conference at Windsor Castle where I gave three talks daily on that theme.

  2. John Navone, S.J. John Navone, S.J. says:

    The grace and call of God for righteous living is present in all the contexts of human life. The human conscience experiences the Question-raising Mystery at the heart of human life as a call for responsible decision and action within all the contexts of human consciousness.

  3. Simplicity of Christ’s Love and Truth, once recognized, begs to be embodied and lived. Jesus came not to save, in the protestant understanding, but rather to make a family through with and in Himself by his personal identification within the lives of each of his brothers and sisters through the Holy Spirit. With this understanding life is everything in ones life that Jesus can give life eternal with his personal identification. Sin,on the other hand, is everything in our lives, actions, motives that He cannot make His own. Sin is empty as is pride. Perhaps that place we go to be purified before getting straight into heaven is for us to give up those parts of our lives we secretly cling that was sin.