Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s absolutely extraordinary and left me re-filled with rekindled my sense of bewilderment over the mystery of human consciousness, amazement at the complex depths of the human quest for bliss, and wonder before the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe.

In particular, I fell in love with a quote near the end of the last chapter (327-28) in which Hart lays out a path for the serious skeptic to travel if s/he is to explore the problem of God:

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a plethora of fascinating insights into the “spirituality over religion” (SOR) craze in the West.

Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this. The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) extracting and abstracting the spiritual life from the messiness of particularity that attends the real-time human quest to love God in a dysfunctional human community; (2) seeking out primarily individual, autonomous, self-legislating fulfillment in a cosmos devoid of inconvenient, hard ethical truths, given by a divine Legislator, that give ascetically honed shape to the life of a religious practitioner. In regard to the second point, he argued that the spirituality without religion movement prescribes thin, vague and soft ethical principles that are easily adapted to individual preference and radically relativize truth, while spirituality within religion prescribes thick, specific and hard precepts, counseling clearly defined virtues and forbidding clearly defined vices that challenge the individual to be shaped and informed by the given-ness of truth.

It was far more sophisticated than that, but that’s the gist.

Do Faith, then we’ll talk

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he gives to the market-place agnostic spiritual-but-not-religious “seekers” who come to him to inspect Orthodox Christianity — who are attracted to Orthodoxy initially, he said, because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “misty” to offer ample room for their quest for an autonomous faith. He said that he happily entertains their interest, but will not engage in substantive “heady” conversations about the faith until they first agree to do what he asks. Listen to his spiel:

For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who — or if — he is, and simply say in the space of 5 minutes of quiet silence, ‘O God, guide me.’ And then listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there, pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. Then after those six months we can talk about what you experienced, and I will try to answer all your questions.

Otherwise, you’re not really serious in your quest and it’s all a game of the mind.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change in opening the skeptical seeker to Christ and his Church.

But, he added, the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession

St. Innocent, pray for us

My very favorite historical theologian, Aidan Nichols, O.P., offered in his fascinating and little noticed book, Christendom Awake, a new ‘liturgical’ approach to the intractable debates over abortion.  An approach that draws its inspiration from today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.

He suggested that the Church, in a single and dramatic act, canonize as “martyrs of innocence” the countless millions of brutally and unjustly aborted children.

He examines the many debates that have surrounded this proposal, especially the challenge of finding real precedent in the Catholic Tradition for canonizing the pre-born, or those whose death is not explicitly endured out of odium fidei, “hatred for the faith.”

One important effect of such an act would be, he argues, that Catholic Christians who formally cooperate in direct abortions would suddenly find themselves ranked not with the “noble army of martyrs,” but rather with that ignoble perpetrators of martyrdom.

In any event, we turn today to these powerless Innocents who suffered as scapegoats for the Lamb of God, and seek their powerful intercession.

Today’s Mass Collect: O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in your which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.’ (Matt. 2:17-18)

“… share your food with the hungry” Isaiah 58:7

In line with our Pope’s passion for calling the Church to face poverty with the ferocity of the self-emptying God of mercy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast of that lover of the poor St. Nicholas, and in concert with Advent’s special focus on joy-bearing alms, I thought I would share a collage of relevant quotes from our sacred Tradition.

PIC

When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not — should he not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry: the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.

– St. Basil

It is not with your own wealth that you give alms to the poor, but with a fraction of their own which you give back; for you are usurping for yourself something meant for the common good of all. The earth is for everyone, not only for the rich.

– St. Ambrose

Do you think that kindness toward your neighbor is not something essential but voluntary; not law but a recommendation? I would wish and think that it were so, were I not frightened by the possibility of being numbered among the goats on the left hand of the Sovereign Judge who will hurl his condemnations; and this not because they have robbed or committed sacrileges or adulteries, nor because they have done something forbidden. Nothing of the sort attracts condemnation on them except their having failed to care for Christ himself in the person of the poor.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Do not make your longing for prayer a pretext for turning away from anyone who asks for your help, for love is greater than prayer.

– St. Symeon the New Theologian

Human beings have accumulated in their coffers gold and silver, clothes more sumptuous than useful, diamonds and other objects that are evidence of war and tyranny; then a foolish arrogance hardens their hearts; for their brothers in distress, no pity. What utter blindness!… Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty… Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.

– St. John Chrysostom

You just need to look at what the gospel asks and what war does. The Gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform acts of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner and sick. The Gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross on others.

– Servant of God Dorothy Day

While fasting physically, brethren, let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity. Let us tear up every unrighteous bond. Let us distribute bread to the hungry and welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads so that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God!

– First week of Lent, Wednesday Vespers

Musical character

Cantare amantis est, “To sing belongs to lovers” — St. Augustine

As yesterday was the feast of the patroness of sacred music, St. Cecilia, I wanted to re-post two quotes I shared here two years ago on the immense power of music to form, or deform, our moral imagination.

After my first child was born, a seasoned grandfather once gave me this piece of advice on parenting: “The best recipe for raising good kids is good books, good music, good friends and your good marriage.”

The hardest “control factor” in our children’s lives has in many ways been the music piece. It’s an endless struggle to wade trough the sea of cultural kitsch and find what is at least acceptable, if not preferable. Though I will not here attempt to share personal reflections on my experience of this struggle here, suffice to say to that all parents should be keenly aware that the music your children listen to is never morally/spiritually neutral, the lifestyle of the musicians is not incidental, and the words/message of the lyrics are not peripheral in significance (belying of the oft repeated phrase, “I just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the tune”). Beyond the simple years of Baby Einstein CDs, choose wisely the music your children imbibe and, while not going ghetto in a posture of cultural isolation, always think: what shape does this music impress in the soft wax of my child’s soul? What character does it conjure? What associations of emotion, thought and behavior doe sit forge?

Quotables

Here are the two quotes — the first, written 2300 years ago by Plato in The Republic; the second, written by Allan Bloom in the 1980s in a book, The Closing of the American Mind, that seriously shook my worldview when I first read it in 1997.

Let me write the songs of a nation – I care not who writes its laws.

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Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

This description may seem exaggerated, but only because some would prefer to regard it as such. The continuing exposure of rock music is a reality, not one confined to a particular class or type of child. One need only ask first-year university students what music they listen to, how much of it and what it means to them, in order to discover that the phenomenon is universal in America, that it begins in adolescence or a bit before and continues through the college years. It is the youth culture and, as I have so often insisted, there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit. Some of this culture’s power comes from the fact that it is so loud. It makes conversation impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground. With rock, illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas, which are supposed to contain so much meaning beyond speech, are the basis of association. None of this contradicts going about the business of life, attending classes and doing assignments for them. But the meaningful inner life is with music.

This phenomenon is both astounding and indigestible, and is hardly noticed, routine and habitual. But it is of historical proportions that a society’s best young and their best energies should be so occupied. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats. It may well be that society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself. The child I described has parents who have sacrificed to provide him with a good life and who have a great stake in his happiness. They cannot believe that the musical vocation will contribute very much to that happiness. But there is nothing they can do about it.  – The Closing of the American Mind, 74

Consuming God on Black Friday

Black Friday 2011

This year’s Black Friday push-back into Thanksgiving evening, 7:00 p.m. has caused a stir as many people feel that something is amiss. But exactly what is it that’s amiss?

I was listening to a talk radio show the other day, and they were interviewing people in a Mall asking them what they thought of the incremental encroachment of sales and store hours into the sacred space of Thanksgiving Day evening – a process they dubbed “Black Friday creep.” Many said they think it’s a shame that stores just won’t leave family time alone. Others offered a more pragmatic view and said that an earlier opening Thursday evening allows people to not feel they have to stay up late into the night to take advantage of sales. One Corporate rep from a store that will open early said “it gives consumers a choice they’ve never had before. It diversifies their options, which is what drives the market and keeps our economy healthy.”

The fact is, consumerism unrestrained by a “thick” ethical and theological worldview (like that articulated in Caritas in Veritate) spares nothing in its ravenous appetite for more, insidiously, relentlessly commodifying persons and placing the core values that undergird marriage, family, childhood, adulthood, sexuality, religion, leisure, or the meaning of the “feast” (e.g. the Sunday Sabbath, Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras) at the service of the market.

On that last point, Josef Pieper powerfully argues in his book Leisure: Basis of Culture that the authentic role of leisure and the feast is to guard those God-given foundations upon which all human dignity lies: truth, goodness and beauty. When the market does not serve, but overtakes these three “transcendentals,” truth becomes a market-driven statistic, goodness a market-driven appetite, and beauty a market-driven advertising ploy.

David, Take it Away

But let me not waste any more time here trying to say poorly what David Hart, yet again, says so incisively. This is taken from his latest book, which I am also wading through with great joy, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an even greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form…In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys. (313-14)

Compassionate with God

9/11/01

I have made the point in this Blog on a number of occasions that our society’s ever-increasing inability to see and accept that there are “tragic” dimensions to life that admit of no ethical resolve “this side of Paradise” leads to such unthinkable and unethical “solutions” to real-life’s painfully tragic limits as the creation and destruction of human embryos to remedy infertility, the redefinition of marriage to canonize same-sex sex, the intentional killing of the terminally ill, or the extermination of 90% of pre-born babies diagnosed (rightly or wrongly) with Down Syndrome (see here).

The Christian story of the Passion of Christ bears within it all of the tensions of human tragedy which find resolve in re-creating, redeeming, tear-wiping Triumph only after the awful finality of agony, torture and death; only after the Tomb is sealed by a lifeless stone and the humanity of God descends headlong into the deepest chasms of Hell.

Spe salvi. In hope we are saved, and hope-bearing Christians would never choose to face the tragic elements of life with a will bent on wrongful compromises with evil in order to alleviate and eradicate the tragic elements of this life. That said, the Samaritan Christian, bearing within the light of Resurrection already now, does all in his or her power to raise up the fallen, to shine the paschal rays of the rising Dawn into every dark Tomb, and to face the tragic elements life in manners that move with the grain of God’s justice, love, mercy and will that all be saved. Just as the martyr’s unwillingess to do evil that good may come of it implicates him or her in a fatal embrace with a tragic fate, so the Christian, ever-called to live such martyrdom, sees in every tragedy a moment of Christian witness, a call to imitate the Master, an encounter with the tragic love of God in Christ that has embraced our disfigured world so that, with Him, we might participate in the ultimate transfiguration of every human story in a new creation where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Rev. 21:4-5)

“Walk with me”

When I lived in Des Moines, I had a young man walk up to me one day while I was reading in a coffee shop (my favorite pastime) and say to me, “I saw you make the sign of the cross. Are you a Christian?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He said with disarming bluntness, “I’m gay and I’m Christian, too. But here’s my problem. The churches I have wandered in and out of the last several years, since I came out, have either demonized or legitimized my orientation. And I feel lost in both those worlds. I don’t know you, and you’ll probably think I’m freaky, but I think God told me to talk to you. What I’m asking is that you don’t try to demonize my orientation or legitimize it. I just want to know if you’d be willing to walk with me?”

Needless to say, I was stupefied by his openness with a complete stranger, but even more by his willingness to face his profoundly painful personal history and inner struggles with such courage, and with a rare openness to living in ambiguity and uncertainty. I won’t reveal the rest of the story, but suffice to say his journey is a “way of the Cross,” marked by an abundant capacity to, as the Catechism words it, “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition” (CCC 2358).

Houselander

All this thought was provoked by an absolutely brilliant reflection of Caryll Houselander (early-mid twentieth century lay Catholic ecclesiastical artist, mystic, popular religious writer and poet in Britain) that I read in the Magnificat this last week.  She is a brilliant author, worth reading, and her insights always provoke new insights and convictions. Drink it in:

There are too many common sense Christians, afraid to spend themselves on anyone from whom they do not get visible results. They are ready with hard work for reform, they pour out good advice, they are proud to be realists who repudiate everything that seems to them to he impractical, including the poetry of Christ, but they have no use for those baffling human creatures who won’t—or can’t—play the game by their rules. These “realists” refuse to see that there are problems that can’t be solved, griefs which cannot be healed, conditions which cannot be cured. They are impatient with the suffering they cannot end; unable to accept its reality, they wash their hands of it, because they cannot, so they think, do anything about it. But we cannot make an end of Christ’s suffering, for as long as the world goes on, the Passion of Christ will go on in his members; and he will ask, not for his suffering to be mitigated, but for sympathy. In Gethsemane Christ tried to awaken his apostles, not because they could take away his agony, but because they could give him their compassion.

Pope Francis’ Compassionate Moment (ABC News)

A CEO and the Janitorial Staff

Today’s first reading from Romans ends with a potent line:

…do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.

I once heard a witness of a CEO in a Legatus meeting who shared his business practice of having lunch with the janitorial and maintenance staff once a month. “It’s not,” he said, “to rack up humility PR points, but to keep myself in touch with the real concerns of those who are often overlooked by those of us at the peak of the business pyramid. We at the top tend to gravitate toward those who are more visibly successful and influential. But the truth is, the most important work to be done in my company — and my personal life — is often done by those who are invisible, who don’t get accolades for their success or influence. Plus, it’s also a bit selfish on my part, since my general experience is that after spending 90 minutes with them my blood pressure drops 20 points. They help me adjust my perspective on what counts most, and they give me a perspective on my work that can be had in no other way.”

He went on to say that as a Catholic he looks to Jesus’ example of going out of His way to associate with the humble and outcasts of society. “Even His choice to embrace the most brutal and heinous form of death, the death of a slave or criminal, was His way of teaching us as God that we are to see ourselves as connected to all our fellow men, all children of one Father, equal in dignity and worthy of being looked at straight in the eye.” He added that the ever-present sinful human tendency to “unjustly stratify social groups” must be met consistently and intentionally by Christians with creative “going out of your way” gestures, expressions of justice and charity, that will help break-up those sinful strata and remind us of what the Catechism tells us: we are all made in God’s image and likeness and all redeemed by Christ.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “and to start today with our small corner of the world is where our call from God begins and where it ends.”

Now that’s the Gospel at work in the thick of things.

Pope Cerebrates Mass for Vatican Janitors, Gardeners

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions, and the great pleasure I take in reading his inimitable celebration of language makes me wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the utterly singular contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me opine that the yield of insight is worth the labor!

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection-resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence-is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

Converting Christians to Christianity

Some meandering thoughts today…

I saw this quote the other day in an article and it nicely captured for me the heart of Pope Francis’ Franciscan reforming style:

The real difference between Francis and Dominic, which is no discredit to either of them, is that Dominic did happen to be confronted with a huge campaign for the conversion of heretics, while Francis had only the more subtle task of the conversion of human beings. It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians to Christianity.

Not as much “Issues” as much Jesus 

I have been reading much in the last six months on the history and condition of Catholicism in the U.S. It’s a fascinating and too little known story. One thing that really struck me (and it’s obvious, I know) is that we are a terribly, internally fractured lot, deeply embedded in our political culture’s polarizing approach to everything; and our evangelizing/culture-war strategies have become largely and inextricably tangled up in that hardened “right-left/liberal-conservative” paradigm that dominates much of our discourse and creates such unhelpful, artificial ideological clusters that make bizarre bedfellows, e.g. Vehement opponents of the death penalty are equally vehement supporters of abortion. An obvious consequence of this state of affairs is that the Gospel, the real core of the Christian proclamation, is obscured. What is that obscured proclamation?

The Word through whom the Father created all things, Jesus Christ, died and rose and lives for ever to free us from sin, to reconcile us to himself and one another, to grant us the unthinkable privilege of sharing in the divine life, to empower all humanity to live the truth in love, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead by the standard of his eternal Gospel.

To speak that Gospel is why the Church exists. It’s the soul of her mission to make that proclamation accessible to humanity. Everything else the Christian does is auxiliary or preparatory for that proclamation.

To Evangelize or to Catechize?

After thinking long on this in September, a theologically impassioned friend of mine called me. As we spoke, I shared with him what I had been reading and the various questions I had raised in response to my reading. In the midst of our conversation, he shared some very insightful observations on how the Catholic Church in the U.S. has tended to handle the recent cultural crises. I’ll sum up some his comments briefly:

In general, I think that the Church should focus on proclaiming this central message of the Gospel to nonbelievers and quit trying to catechize them, that is, to teach them how to live a Christian life. She should address her catechesis only to believers in the Gospel, and take care to make it clear how that catechesis is carrying out Jesus’ command to teach those who have responded to evangelization, with faith and baptism and “all that I have commanded you.” Now, as a Catholic I obviously support reasonable advocacy efforts that work to preserve truth and justice in our law based on a natural law vision of the good. But we tend to obsess on the ethical “issues,” on winning arguments, and we tend to so politicize our faith that one wonders where encountering the Risen Christ and His redeeming grace fits in. Catholics need to become far more comfortable speaking about their personal and Catholic faith in the God of Jesus Christ with their neighbors, friends and co-workers, and not just about their stance on politically charged “issues,” employing reasonable arguments. Though reason and faith are mutually inclusive, for a Christian even the best thinking can only find its fulfillment in the dialogue partner encountering Jesus. I think of a woman who had come through RCIA a few years ago, and said to me: “What changed my mind on abortion in the end was the realization that if I desire intimacy with God and holiness, the idea of killing my pre-born child just seems absurd; just like adultery seems most absurd in the light of my love for and intimacy with my husband, and not because of some abstract argument.” Good thinking and good arguments can help cultivate the soil, but without inviting Jesus into our strident advocacy we’re just self-made, self-sufficient Pelagians. Catholics have to think this way: Jesus really wants to be invited into our culture, into our neighbor’s home, into our cubicle at work, into the political order. And you’re his only “in”!

In this vein, he referenced Pope Benedict’s Inaugural Homily, and especially B16′s reference to the “fear” that Catholics can feel in regard to speaking freely of Jesus in American ears — let me quote the part of the homily he referred to here:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

“Imagine if we really believed,” my friend said, “that being open about our faith in Jesus was not a threat to anyone, but rather was a supremely liberating and freeing and fulfilling action that possessed the inner power to transform minds and hearts from within, giving people the hope they need to be good and the courage they need to do good. It’s really risky, but I think if we risk it we might actually be Christian then!”

He also mentioned similar points made in a book by Dr. Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock, which then reminded me of a portion of a lecture Kreeft gave that really grabbed my imagination:

Why is it that if you were to mention the name of Buddha, Mohammed or Confucius you would be viewed as someone who has an open mind, is well read and informed, but, if you mention the name of Jesus, the conversation gets uncomfortable? I think it is Jesus’ fault. After all, Buddha, Mohammed or Confucius were great moral teachers. They pointed their followers to something greater than themselves. They would say, “don’t look to me, look to my teaching.” Jesus on the other hand doesn’t point to anything greater than himself. He doesn’t say, “follow my teaching” he says, “follow me!” That is a pretty bold statement.

All other religious leaders have used a sort of third point of reference. The “meaning of life” can be spoken of in the third person. You can disregard the teaching without disregarding the teacher. That doesn’t work with Jesus because he is his teaching. He isn’t just the messenger, he is the message. The two are inseparable. Jesus doesn’t tell us that he will show us the way, the truth and the life. He says, “I AM the way, the truth and the life.” You can’t reject Jesus’ way without rejecting Jesus.

Jesus requires a response; He provokes a response. For some it is a response of adoration and worship; for others it is a response of anger and hate. Why would one respond in anger? Because when we look Jesus, he shows us ourselves. When we look at Jesus, we see our true selves; and we don’t like what we see.

I’ll leave you with that Kari Jobe song I’ve embedded here before — it just says it so simply and well: